The San Diego Chargers stumbled off the field Sunday following a 20-17 defeat after a final play that perfectly summarized their afternoon. They moved forward, side-to-side, then backwards, running around like chickens with their heads cut off before finally running out of options when Rivers kicked the ball like a toddler.
The boys in navy and gold didn't so much lose to the Tennessee Titans as they did to the internal battle of common sense versus stupidity. To borrow a line from Adam Sandler's Mr. Deeds, "stupidity won in straight sets."
The Chargers' first mental mistake came before the play started when they failed to declare linebacker Donald Butler inactive in sufficient time to replace him with another player.
Butler, who missed several days of practice with a groin injury, suited up and tested the injury in pregame warm-ups, ultimately deciding he wasn't ready to go. Head Coach Mike McCoy attempted to notify NFL officials of Butler's status, but the declaration came too late and the Chargers were forced to play a man down.
Once the game started, the Chargers got off to a good start, scoring a touchdown on their first drive and stopping the Titans' offense with consecutive three-and-outs. Then came their second drive and their second mistake.
Leading 7-0 and driving in Titans territory, McCoy decided to punt on fourth down with a yard to go. With the ball on the Titans 39-yard line the Chargers, were out of field-goal range and a punt could easily end up in the end zone for a touchback. This is a classic go for it, nothing to lose, everything to gain scenario and McCoy decided to play it safe.
With the Chargers still leading 7-3, Titans punter Brett Kern mishandled the snap giving San Diego great field position on the Titans' 30-yard line. A pass interference penalty gave the Chargers a first and goal at the 1-yard line. Rivers threw a touchdown pass to receiver Eddie Royal, but the score was nullified when it was determined that rookie receiver Keenan Allen illegally set a pick on Royal's defender.
That mistake was innocent enough as it was a shallow crossing route and Allen couldn't avoid contact but the situation was exacerbated when Rivers received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for throwing a world-class, toddler-style hissy fit. The result of both penalties was a 1st-and-goal from the 30-yard line, and the Chargers would eventually settle for a field goal.
The Titans responded with a game-tying touchdown drive, leaving the Chargers with 1:08 to play in the half. The Chargers got in position to kick a go-ahead field goal, but had it blocked when second-year tight end Ladarius Green failed to secure the edge-rusher.
In the third quarter, the Chargers accomplished something they hadn't done in nearly a year when Ronnie Brown rushed from the 1-yard line for a touchdown. Brown's score was the Chargers first rushing touchdown since last October, a span of 358 rushes without hitting paydirt.
In the fourth quarter, the Chargers limited the Titans to a field goal and found themselves in a favorable situation with the game winding down. The Chargers had a 17-13 lead, possession of the ball with six minutes remaining in the game and the Titans had only one timeout.
That's when it all went south.
The Chargers predictably came out running—a valid plan at this stage of the game—with three consecutive carries by Ryan Mathews resulting in a first down with less than four minutes remaining. The Chargers kept running with Mathews, but on second down replacement lineman Rich Ohrnberger was flagged for holding and left tackle King Dunlap left the game with a concussion.
This marks the beginning of the end.
The second-down play stopped the clock, moved the Chargers back ten yards, and forced the Chargers to shuffle nearly every player on the offensive line in response to Dunlap's injury.
Mike Harris—who started in place of D.J. Fluker (concussion)—moved from right tackle to left tackle; Jeromey Clary moved from right guard to right tackle; Ohrnberger—who replaced Chad Rinehart (turf toe)—moved from left guard to right guard; and Johnnie Troutman came in to play left guard.
On 3rd-and-9, with 2:25 remaining and the Titans still with a timeout, the Chargers ran again. This was stupid on a number of levels.
One, it's unrealistic to expect that Mathews would pick up the first down behind a makeshift offensive line and having averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. Two, the Titans would obviously use the timeout before the two-minute warning, making a rush attempt to burn the clock completely ineffective. Three, it puts the pressure squarely on a depleted defensive unit going against a two-minute offense.
What could go wrong?
The defense went to zone prevent coverage allowing the Titans to complete passes down the middle of the field and keep the clock moving. The Chargers nearly got a gift when a Jake Locker pass deflected off receiver Damian Williams into the hands of safety Marcus Gilchrist, who couldn't hang on as Williams' arms and helmet jarred the ball loose.
Then the last, and most costly of all mistakes, came on the final defensive play. Eric Weddle, the best player in an otherwise lackluster secondary, blitzed. That's right: He vacated the depleted back field in pursuit of the quarterback.
Let's analyze the situation.
The Titans are on the Chargers' 34-yard line. They trail by four points so a field goal won't do. There is 21 seconds on the clock. They have no time outs. There are only two things the Titans can possibly do: throw it to the end zone or throw it deep towards the sideline. Either way, having both safeties deep is imperative.
Weddle shows blitz early rushing to the line of scrimmage allowing plenty of time for Locker to account for him and read the single coverage on the outside. Crezdon Butler—a player signed just last week—is up against 6'4" rookie Justin Hunter.
Gilchrist will be the lone support in the secondary, forcing him to play center field—meaning he must be able to break to either side of the field when the ball is thrown.
Locker, knowing the blitz is coming from his left, rolls out to his right, sees the single coverage on Hunter, knows Hunter has a considerable size advantage on Butler, sees that Gilchrist will have to run approximately 20 yards across the field to get to the play and launches a pass to the right front corner of the end zone.
Hunter leaps up for the ball, arms stretched well past those of Butler, Gilchrist still a good five yards from making himself relevant to the play, and reels in the go-ahead touchdown pass with 15 seconds to play. Game, set, match!
Stupid penalties, poor play-calling and a general lack of depth were the causes of this demise.
I give the Titans, and specifically Jake Locker, credit for a gritty come-from-behind performance, but this was more a Chargers loss than a Titans win.